For the next few months, the first Wednesday of the month will be dedicated to musical theatre and how it got to be what it is today — and what that means for kids, and for those of us who are interested in getting kids involved in the performing arts.
Last month, we looked at the early beginnings of musical theatre, focusing on the progression from opera to operetta/comic opera to vaudeville and music hall. This month, we’re moving into the 1920s and 1930s, where the ever-evolving stage musical moved several more dance steps toward the form we know today.
There was a lot of singing and dancing going on as the teens turned into the twenties (19teens to 1920s, that is). The famous impresario, Florenz Ziegfield, and his equally famous Follies (a new show each year) brought people in droves to see his grand productions featuring multitudes of chorus girls in amazing costumes doing elaborately choreographed dance routines, as well as to hear the famous singers and comedians who filled out the program.
The Follies inspired the next stage in the development of the “Great American Musical” — the Revue. (Hey! That’s us!) According to the huge book, Broadway: The American Musical (companion volume to the six-part PBS series), about 120 revues opened on Broadway in the 1920s. Revues, like vaudeville and the Follies, combined a little of this and a little of that, song, dance, drama, but again, they were a step up from what had gone before.
Many of the revues on Broadway in the ’20s were definitely adult entertainment, but a few, like the Garrick Gaieties, put an “emphasis on youth, wit, and parodies of contemporary shows.” (quoting the Broadway book mentioned above). This revue gave the lyricist/composer duo of Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers their start — later, they would go on to write some of the best loved Broadway musicals of all time.
Gradually the shows began to develop more of a plot line, and become more like the musicals we know today. In the 1930s, more opportunities for women to be more than just “showgirls” was an empowering step. Another group that found empowerment, or at least the beginnings of it, were African Americans.
Although in the 1920s, Al Jolson built his popularity on a version of the minstrel show, performing in “blackface” makeup, jazz was coming on the scene, and musicians like Eubie Blake were introducing it to a wide audience, bringing true African American talent to the fore. George Gershwin’s jazz compositions also contributed to this empowerment, through his all-African American opera/musical Porgy and Bess. (Although the way speech is portrayed in this musical would not be considered politically correct these days, it still is a great step forward in the development of the musical.)
Broadway was moving towards the musical as we know it. Next month in this series — Rodgers, Hart, Hammerstein and others bring the musical to new heights. See you back on stage for Musicals: Part 3!